A fighter jet slices through the mute heat of the desert, momentarily chasing off strange mirages and small lizards. Tucked away in the desiccated hellscape between California’s Death Valley and Mojave Desert sits a sprawling military research complex—the largest U.S. Navy landholding in the world. Barret Baumgart’s debut book begins here, at Naval Air Weapons Station: China Lake.
Equal parts memoir, investigative reporting, and bizarre dreamscape, China Lake: A Journey into the Contradicted Heart of a Global Climate Catastrophe—which won the Iowa Prize in Literary Nonfiction—is an arresting inquiry into the accelerating decay of our planet. True to its desert setting, Baumgart’s narrative is rife with extremes. Scientific jargon clashes with Internet conspiracy, Native American folklore with New-Age woo woo; man with government; science with fringe. At the core of this dizzying journey is Baumgart’s desire to understand the environmental ambitions of the American military, the largest single consumer of energy in the world. What does the Pentagon have to do with the climate?
Baumgart’s language is haunting and hallucinatory. A kaleidoscopic trip through drought-addled Californian deserts, lush Vietnam rainforests (where the military first attempted to weaponize the weather), and ultimately, the LEED-certified white hallways of the Pentagon. China Lake is energetic, at times fanatical with its verbosity. But it is consistently masterful, and it is with great skill that Baumgart negotiates the disparate threads of journalistic research, personal observation, and his own searingly vivid imagination. He does not show so much as he thrusts the reader into his work, weaving between seemingly unrelated subjects like defense spending, heavy metal lyrics, and his mother’s alcohol addiction. China Lake navigates a universe of topics within a single breath. The result is a surreal, original work that simultaneously entertains and terrifies.
Baumgart’s book first takes us beyond the barbed wire fences of the China Lake weapons testing facility, where he hopes to uncover information about government weather modification research. The protected military compound houses approximately 250,000 rock carvings by ancient Shoshone-Paiute shamans, mostly depicting bighorn sheep in an attempt to summon rain; a form of early weather modification. Visits today are tightly controlled and closely monitored. Many of the tourists are New Age hippie types seeking—and often appropriating—Native American divinity, cherry-picking the anthropology of shamanism to suit their own interests. They pilgrimage to holy Indian sites, consuming auras and stolen spiritual energy.
Some of the later petroglyphs depict men in pointed hats riding strange creatures. These were white men, who—after manifesting their destiny across the West—would later transform the sacred springs of China Lake’s Coso Range into tourist baths and bottle up the holy water to sell to Caucasian hippies, forcing the natives to hold their important spiritual traditions at odd, dark hours. They would study the indigenous petroglyphs and misattribute them to the work of aliens or misidentify them as hunting murals, unwilling to simply engage with the surviving tribes and ask.
The irony is not lost on Baumgart.
“Who are we today who protect the traces of past man while, in the same breath, in the same cratered desert, we perfect the art of erasing him from the present?”
The bite of irony runs deep throughout China Lake. As Baumgart’s sprawling investigation into weather modification and geoengineering takes him from conspiratorial YouTube video comments to a research facility at Stanford University, then across the continent to the nation’s capital, he realizes something. The U.S. military does not need to secretly seed pregnant clouds or pump millions of tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere in a crude effort to block sunlight in order to modify the weather. The Pentagon consumes more energy than any other institution on the planet—meaning it probably emits more carbon dioxide than anyone else. Our military, simply by existing and operating, is already modifying the weather. Forget the conspiracy theories on chemtrails and secret government experiments: it’s happening right before our eyes.
But ultimately, China Lake is as much a critique on man as it is a warning against the military-environmental complex and climate disaster. Baumgart dissects our collective folly with a surgical blade. A generation of people so self-interested that we ignore rationality, opting instead to live in the fiction of our minds and addictions.
“As Americans, we tend to seek good without evil, love devoid of hate, and Christ without Lucifer. We avoid pain, pay millions of dollars to watch the same happy Hollywood endings, and spend our lives driving among various pharmaceutical, spiritual, and self-medicating cures.”
In today’s political climate, China Lake is frighteningly timely. Reality is not enough. As our leadership abandons rational discourse on climate change and environmental disaster, maybe Baumgart’s dose of bizarre, surreal storytelling is just what we need to incept our darkening fate. Because in the end, “the ice doesn’t care about politics or Democrats of Republicans: it just melts.”
CHRISTINE MI is an illustrator living in Brooklyn. She draws a webcomic called Sad Girl Pop.